Media Adtech Sustainability

Why advertisers think we’ve hit peak Black Friday carbon emissions

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By John McCarthy | Media editor

November 29, 2022 | 9 min read

A titanic onslaught of Black Friday and Cyber Monday campaigns resulted in what will likely be the highest carbon emissions from advertising this year. The Drum explores how brands can change their ways before next year’s retail event.

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Can Black Friday ads be more eco-friendly?

Black Friday’s novelty factor has waned over the years, but it remains a key sales window for brands savvy to secure the final wages of shoppers before the Christmas rush.

Adobe Analytics data projected that online Black Friday spend in the US hit $9.12bn, up 2.3% year-on-year, with greater sales booked in for Cyber Monday. Predictions of a sales slowdown due to economic uncertainty seem to be unfounded, with a Deloitte poll suggesting that 48% of shoppers would use credit cards – and a further 37% said they’d use buy now, pay later services – to secure discounts.

Research from Nosto analyzing sales performance on some 1,000 e-commerce stores found that web traffic was up 6.3% and sales 8.4%. This uptick in shopping behavior means more ads from brands desperate to win over frantic buyers. The adtech apparatus was in full flow from digital display, search and social video to the much-favored publisher affiliates. And these all contribute to what some advertisers estimate will be the highest carbon-emitting event of the year.

Anne Coghlan, co-founder and chief operating officer of adtech carbon emissions-calculating firm Scope3, blames the emissions on the sheer amount of commerce traffic. “More users are online, which inevitably means that more server capacity is required for more ads to be shown to users browsing for that Black Friday bargain.”

This Black Friday may represent a peak in advertising emissions since it began tracking.

What type of ads run during Black Friday

A typical Black Friday ad is geared toward sales rather than brand building. Amy Williams, chief executive officer and founder of purpose-led ad platform Good-Loop, says: “It’s about delivering a value-led message to price-conscious consumers at a time when they are looking to nab a few spontaneous deals. Unlike Christmas ads, which are all about storytelling through rich, beautiful assets, the best Black Friday campaigns need to be fast and efficient, with a high conversion rate.”

Encouragingly, the ad formats best suited to Black Friday are often the lightest and greenest, she explains. “On average our green media technology has found that display ad formats (banners and takeovers on a web page or mobile) emit 7.75x fewer CO2e than video formats (favored in top-of-funnel brand-building campaigns).”

Williams also suggests shorter video ads for conscientious marketers. A campaign it recently ran for a quick-serve restaurant brand at six seconds emitted almost seven times less CO2e than its benchmark for a 30-second video.

New research from Purpose Disruptors, presented at Cop27, claimed that advertising adds 32% to an individual’s carbon footprint. Highlighting this invisible cost, Williams points to a recent campaign from Adidas and Allbirds to create a trainer with a carbon footprint of 2.94kg CO2e per pair.

She said that a typical Black Friday campaign running 1bn impressions with a 1% conversation rate would result in an additional 29m tonnes of CO2e being produced. The carbon cost of media for the advertising campaign is equivalent to the production of 9,863,945 trainers.

“The carbon cost of Black Friday needs to be framed, not only within the supply chain, but also within the larger responsibility our industry has,” says Williams. Coghlan adds: “The industry needs to get serious about meeting its sustainability goals and commit to making this peak.”

Some brands are up to the challenge. Scope3 co-boss Brian O’Kelley saw Worldlifestyle.com reduce its carbon footprint by 50%, managing a reduction of 80% grams CO23 per ad impression simply by stripping out 47% of resellers from his Ads.Txt file, reducing the number of intermediaries being contacted for each ad impression.

Coghlan urges advertisers to change the way they allocate spend, first by measuring the carbon footprint of their campaigns, then factoring that into media planning and buying. “Don’t buy ads real users don’t see,” she adds, pointing to recent research urging advertisers to dump Made For Advertising (MFA) sites. Efficient campaigns that cut out ineffective channels and reach real humans naturally have a lower impact on the environment. In short: bots don’t buy.

How can publishers help?

Meanwhile, GoodNet is helping publishers push green media products to a wider audience of eco-conscious advertisers. It says it sees some brands now allocating between 5% and 10% of their media budgets toward these types of publishers. The group believes the sector will boom in the coming year too.

Co-founder Oliver Deane says: “Our publishers advocate responsible consumerism and many of them approach Black Friday in that way.” If the event itself will be a polluting peak, could the comms at least be used to effectively change consumer behavior? Perhaps, but on moving into quality publishing environments, advertisers are reportedly seeing multiple benefits anyway.

“Ethical publisher environments are actually good for brands. One retailer we worked with exceeded its cost by click (CPC) target by 59% while delivering CO2 emissions 32% lower than the industry average.”

Meanwhile, GoodNet’s other co-founder Guy Jones suggests the mission is to “achieve the highest possible ROI for an advertiser with the lowest possible impact on the planet,” and boasts that its average emissions per impression served are 8% lower than the Scope3 and Ebiquity’s new industry average.

Here’s advice from all those interviewed in this piece, guiding advertisers to a Black Friday with fewer emissions:

  • Support sustainability publishers with content that inspires and educates people toward more responsible consumption

  • Partner with businesses that take carbon measurement and reduction seriously, including networks and publishers that offer more carbon-efficient supply paths

  • Adopt ad formats that generate less carbon per impression

  • Expect media owner partners to transparently report independently-measured carbon emissions data

  • See that they reduce their emissions on an ongoing basis – there’s no excuse for not doing it

  • Using SVG image files can slash up to two-thirds of the energy required to serve an ad as they’re smaller

  • When appropriate, consider using shorter video ads

  • Only target websites with high viewability and attention rates to reduce the risk of wasting budget on ads that are never seen

  • Publishers should optimize supply paths to reduce wasteful intermediaries

Will advertisers be able to see through the smokescreen and ensure they’ve cleaned up their act for Black Friday 2023? With it being something clients are more actively pursuing, they may not have a choice.

Media Adtech Sustainability

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